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#43 On guilt

Dear Mat,

Conspiracy theorists miss a trick by alleging clandestine operations by shadowy cabals of powerful men who secretly run the world. They could simply point out the cabal of powerful men who openly run the world. Genuine, secret conspiracies occasionally happen as well. The CIA really did murder black leaders in the 1960s for COINTELPRO. But the surprising thing about COINTELPRO is not that public officials given ample funding and little oversight tend to abuse their power to control a populace, but that most people haven’t heard of COINTELPRO. The real conspiracy is languishing in the open, while febrile imaginings of the Illuminati and flat earths are common knowledge.

Describing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ account as “conspiratorial” is wrong because it implies secrecy. There are no secrets here, just very little awareness. Slavery was not a secret, nor was Jim Crow, nor were civil rights abuses in the South. I don’t think there are secrets about race relations in American today either. There are dozens of objective measures of racial discrimination in America, repeatedly and easily demonstrated in the labour market, bank loans, police treatment, schooling, the decisions of juries, etc. There is not an equivalent literature on how white groups are disadvantaged in the same way. (Fittingly, white conspiracy theorists think there is.)

There are two ways to rebut the fairly obvious and open fact that black people are disadvantaged slightly at every little step by a legacy of slavery, dispossession, rape, murder and segregation. The first is to say that the whole thing is a conspiracy. Fake news. Otherwise one has to get into refuting specific facts — very difficult. I’ll deal with the second one below.

Meanwhile, you are certainly right that the racism is generally unintentional. Apart from the Klan, people aren’t deliberately racist. The police in America don’t think they’re racist. So is calling them racist wrong because they think it is a subjective thing? But if their revealed preferences are racist in effect then perhaps that’s objective racism? As you say people are often mistaken even about themselves.

Those police were appalled by blanket accusations of racist brutality, just because of the actions of a few bad eggs. “Blue lives matter,” they cried, unironically, even as they made the case that stereotyping a whole group because of a few bad individuals was wrong. They made this case to the black community. So no, people aren’t particularly aware of things.

Throughout modern history people who are in an objectively good situation — normally young men with an intellectual bent, like Nietzsche or those who read him — have tried to level themselves with the wretched. This is the second response. The move goes like this: everyone faces struggles, this is a metaphysical fact, a result of a hostile, godless universe and so we all have to turn our face to a harsh wind and struggle to assert ourselves in the face of meaninglessness. This is a powerful philosophy, still dominant in educated, secular circles left and right. It runs through existentialism, objectivism, libertarianism, punk and postmodernism and is now happily ensconced in the alt-right. Needless to say I think it is wrong as fuck and am writing a book that repudiates it. I fear Jordan Peterson strays down this path.

And it’s not just Nietzsche. The big three of modernity all loom large. Nietzsche said, “God is dead”. Freud told us god is dad. Marx’s followers seem to be saying dead is good… Anyway,  they’re all still influential, I think, because they all allow modern people to deal with guilt. There are no secrets. Everybody knows how unequal the wold is, so assuaging guilt is paramount. Feel bad for the poor? Go with Marx and be a champagne socialist. Feel bad that you feel bad when you’ve got it good? Nietzsche has you covered: you’re facing the same cosmic struggle as anyone, no better off than the people dying of schistosomiasis on the other side of the world.

I agree that a single individual is the wrong scale on which to look for something objective about politics. The cosmos is also the wrong scale. The appropriate level is systemic. This sounds lame: “it’s the system man”. But it is. And it’s not magical. The system is just a bunch of people connected. Exploitation and discrimination adds up through lots of people’s actions. The fix therefore also has to be systemic, hence constitutions, laws, institutions, yada, yada.

History is neither inevitable nor eternal, it’s complicated. Things might go one way or the other depending on contingent facts. This is not a popular view because it’s hard to compress into a formula. But I think it is more satisfying because it has no place for guilt, only a warrant for compassion. Thinking proportionally one recognises that some are worse off, some are more worse off and that all these differences matter and are not part of a conspiracy. One’s own privilege is therefore a source of celebration and freedom, not denial; others’ disadvantage is something to be reduced, not denied. Why? Because the world isn’t meaningless without god, it’s saturated with meaning by persons, but only if they’re well-off and free.

Guilty about my word count,

Jamie.


Also published on Medium.